31 Verifying Twitter Identity

One relatively common form of misinformation is the fake celebrity retweet. Sometimes this happens by accident – a person mistakenly retweets a parody account as real. Sometimes this happens by design, with an account faking a retweet. Here are some tips to make sure that the tweet you are looking at on Twitter is from the person you are attributing it to.

Twitter Identity Basics

Twitter accounts are generally run by a single person. However, unlike Facebook, Twitter does not enforce a “real name” policy, which makes it easy for one person to run multiple accounts, and to run accounts under different names. In fact, an important part of Twitter culture is the constellation of parody accounts, bots, and single issue accounts that amuse and inform Twitter subscribers.

At the same time, it is easy to get confused. As an example, consider the account of Representative Jack Kimble. Here’s a typical tweet:

A tweet by user @RepJackKimble that reads, “Why have the wars cost so much under Obama? Check the budgets, Bush fought 2 wars without costing taxpayers a dime.”If you’re a liberal, looking at this tweet may get your blood boiling. How can anyone possibly believe this? Especially a Representative?

Scanning the Twitter bio doesn’t help.

A tweet by user @RepJackKimble that reads, “Why have the wars cost so much under Obama? Check the budgets, Bush fought 2 wars without costing taxpayers a dime.”

Here we see that he’s from the 54th District of California and he has written a book. Now if we are reading carefully we might notice some fishy things here: his book, Profiles in Courageousness, seems like a parodic re-titling of Jack Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. “E pluribus unum,” which means “From the many, one,” is translated to “1 nation under God”.

Also, California only has 53 districts.

Unfortunately, you may be so upset about the comments that you won’t notice any of these things. So what is a general purpose indicator that you need to slow down? In most cases, it’s going to be the absence of a “verified account” marker.

Checking Verified Accounts

As a counter-example to “Representative Kimble,” here’s a real representative, Jason Chaffetz, from Utah’s 3rd District.

The Twitter bio of user The Twitter bio of user @jasoninthehouse reading, “United States Congressman (UT-3). Chairman, Oversight & Government Reform. Tweets come from me, not my staff.” The user’s name has a small blue seal next to his name, indicating that his identity is verified by Twitter.

That little blue seal with the check mark (the “verified badge”) indicates that this is a “verified identity” by TwitterTwitter asserts that this person has proven that they are who they say they are.

Who gets to get verified? It’s a bit unclear. Twitter puts it this way:

An account may be verified if it is determined to be an account of public interest. Typically this includes accounts maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.

However, all members of Congress and senior administration officials qualify for such status. So do most major public figures and prominent writers. If you don’t see the blue badge, either disregard the tweet as suspicious, or do further research.

One additional note: sometimes people try to fake these indicators; an example is faking a verification symbol in a header.

The header of Twitter user @PerseusJackson, strategically using the background image to give the impression that it is a verified account by Twitter.

This user has used their background image to place a verification badge next to their name. To steer clear of these sorts of hacks, always view the badge in the sidebar or small “hover” card, not in the header. To be extra sure it is legitimate, hover your cursor over it, and the words “verified account” should pop up.

This sounds complicated, but once you learn it, it only takes a few seconds. In the video example (below) the quick hove technique is used to check to see if this is really New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Spotify playlist, or a fake account.

Checking a Verification Badge in Twitter [YouTube Video] by Mike Caulfield.

In this case it’s verified. The governor should probably lay off Billy Joel a bit, but this is a legitimate tweet.

Other Methods

Not all celebrities have verified accounts. If you don’t find the verification badge, you may have to dig a little deeper.

There are a couple things to look for in an unverified account:

  • Start date: Did the user fire up this account six weeks ago? In general, older accounts are more trustworthy.
  • Followers: Not always a perfect metric, but do the number of followers seem about right for the personality’s popularity? Do they have any followers you know?
  • Previous Tweets: Are there many previous tweets, and are they what you would expect from the account? Do they have conversations with people in ways that you would expect?

As an example, here is the Minerva Schools’ Twitter account. Minerva is a small, but high-profile school in California. The account is not verified. Is the account legitimate? Is it really Minerva?

The Twitter bio of user @MinervaSchools reading, “Minerva offers a unique undergraduate education for the brightest, most motivated students in the world.”

A number of things suggest it is. It was created in August 2013, right around the time that Minerva was created. It has followers we recognize from educational technology, which is what the school is known for. One of the followers is a person that we know works at Minerva.

Twitter user @MinervaSchool’s tweetstream from February showing two tweets, the number of followers the account has, and the number of tweets the account has made.We could stop there, or we could also note that the tweet stream is entirely consistent with what we would expect for an organization like this, and the number of followers, while not huge, is in line with what we might expect for an account like this.

No one single factor clinches it (although the employee showing up in the follow list comes close), but all these factors together give us a fair amount of confidence that this is a legitimate account.

If we wanted to go one step further, we could web search the handle and see if it is referenced from any official pages.

Fake Screenshots

Sometimes people fake screenshots of tweets that never happened.

Not all tweet screenshots are fake. Many times Twitter users will screenshot a tweet rather than retweet it because they fear the original will be deleted. Below is Michael Li screen-shotting an embarrassing tweet which was later deleted.

A tweet by user @mcpli mocking the screenshot of a supposed tweet by user @DanPatrick which reads, “MARRIAGE= ONE MAN & ONE MAN. Enough of these activist judges. FAVORITE if you agree. I know the silent majority out there is with us!”

Other times, people may screenshot a tweet because they wish to discuss a tweet without attracting the ire of a particular group of followers. As an example, during the #Gamergate controversy many people critical of Gamergate took screenshots of bad behavior on Twitter (harassment and the like) because they were afraid that if they commented via re-tweeting they might become a target themselves.

Sometimes people retweet screenshots as a way of breaking a chain of credit, so that people will be forced to retweet them, and not the original tweeter. This practice is rightfully frowned on.

Sometimes the screenshot may be fabricated. In fact, many “tweet generators” exist online that allow you to create fake pictures of tweets. The tweet (below) is fabricated.

A fake tweet generated by the author of this text that shows user @BarackObama tweeting, “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers is AMAZING! You should read it. (Thanks Mike!)”
If you come across a person re-tweeting a screenshot, check to see if the tweet really exists on Twitter. In the above example, you could check Obama’s timeline.

Deleted Tweets

What if they deleted the tweet, as in the “ONE MAN + ONE MAN” example above? How do you verify it then? Or what if the tweet someone was referencing has since been deleted.

Don’t worry – in many cases there are still ways to find the tweet.

If it’s a tweet from a politician (and it usually is) you can try Politiwhoops, which logs all tweets deleted by significant public officials.  Here are some tweets recently deleted by President Trump:

End. FIGURE 81 A video showing how to view the cached version of @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter page by searching the account through Google, hovering over the drop down arrow next to the first result’s URL, and selecting “Cached.” End. FIGURE 82 Google’s cache information of @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter page, reading “This is Google’s cache of https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump. It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on Feb 15, 2017 14:46:56 GMT.” End. FIGURE 83 The search bar of the Wayback Machine with the search term “whitehouse.gov” typed in. End. FIGURE 84 The Wayback Machine’s search results for “whitehouse.gov” displaying a calendar of the months of January, February, March, and April of 1999 with blue and green dots encasing some of the calendar’s dates. End. FIGURE 85 The page of whitehouse.gov from January 1999 showing links to White House documents, the contents of the website, Radio Addresses of the President, Executive Orders, Photographs, a database to all government sites, The Decleration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, a subscription list, and press releases. End. FIGURE 86 An ABCNews.co article entitled, “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally” and showing a publication date of November 11, 2016. End. FIGURE 87 An ABCNews.co article entitled, “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally” and showing a publication date of March 24, 2016. End. FIGURE 88 An ABCNews.co article entitled, “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally” and showing a publication date of June 16, 2016. End. FIGURE 89 An ABCNews.co article entitled, “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally” and showing a publication date of Septembe 11, 2016. End. FIGURE 90 The first Google result for “site:abcnews.com.co/donald-trump-protester-speaks-out-i-was-paid-to-protest/” showing the abcnews.co article with a publication date of March 26, 2016. End. FIGURE 91 A tweet by user @cbquist posting a quote supposedly said by Carl Sagan, which states, “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time–when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” End. FIGURE 92 The top Google Books search results for “clutching our crystals and nervously consulting.” End. FIGURE 93 An excerpt of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, found through Google Books, where Sagan provides the quote that was attributed to him by Twitter user @cbquist. End. FIGURE 94 The publication information of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World showing a publication date of 1996. End. FIGURE 95 Internet Archive‘s TV News Archive search for “tremendous sea of love.” The second result is our video, and I have circled the video, which is from ABC. End. FIGURE 96 A search for “pence muslim ban” in the Trump archive, which shows the text of a video in which Mike Pence, when asked if he agrees with the Muslim ban, responded, “I do.” End. FIGURE 97 Google search result for “how many men landed on the moon” in which a knowledge panel answers the query via Quora with “12 men.” End. FIGURE 98 Google search result for “last man to land on the moon” in which a knowledge panel pulls text from a Wikipedia article and puts the name “Cernan” in bold as the answer to the question. End. FIGURE 99 Google search result for “how many apostles were there” in which a knowledge panel replies “12 apostles” via Quora. End. FIGURE 100 Google search result for “how old was lee harvey oswold at the time of the assassination” in which a knowledge panel puts in bold 18, 22, and 24, which are numbers from Oswold’s date of birth, date of death, and the date of the assassination via a Wikipedia article. None are an answer to the Googled question. End. FIGURE 101 Google search result for “Presidents in the kkk” in which a knowledge panel pulls the names of several presidents from The Trent Online. End. FIGURE 102 Google search result for “is obama planning martial law” in which a knowledge panel pulls a quote from newstarget.com claiming that Obama is in fact planning martial law. End. FIGURE 103 Google search result for “why did lee harvey oswold assassinate president kennedy” in which a knowledge panel pulls text from a site claiming that Oswold did not assassinate President Kennedy. End. FIGURE 104 Google search result for “msg sensitvity” in which a knowledge panel pulls a list of symptoms from Healthline. End. FIGURE 105 Google search result for “msg dangers” in which a knowledge panel brings up Mercola, which claims that msg causes brain damage, such as Alzheimer’s disease and learning disabilities. End. FIGURE 106 Homepage of Buzzsumo, which features a search bar on its main page. End. FIGURE 107 Buzzsumo results for “cancer,” showing two articles and their Facebook engagements, which is meant to measure the virality of the articles on Facebook. End. FIGURE 108 Buzzsumo results for “cancer” scrolled down a few articles. One article, “Royal Rife: Cancer Cure Genius Silenced by Medical Mafia” uses particularly inflammatory language. End. FIGURE 109 Domain Dossier search bar with “coca-cola.com” typed in and a list of databases it searches with boxes next to them you click to include results from. End. FIGURE 110 Domain Dossier results for the search on “coca-cola.com” in which the registrant’s name, organization, street, and city are all available for public access. End. FIGURE 111 Domain Dossier search results for “protrump45.com,” showing that the site’s owner is masked. End. FIGURE 112 Domain Dossier search results showing the registrant of a site’s name as Domains by Proxy, LLC, a service that masks the real owners of sites. End. FIGURE 113 Google search results for “was 9/11 a hoax” in which the top five sites confirm the conspiracy that 9/11 was faked. End. FIGURE 114 Google search results for “are we eating too much protein” in which Google pulls a knowledge panel from Huffington Post, and the top site promotes veganism. End. FIGURE 115 Promoted tweet from user @SafeMedicine urging us to tweet our senators against our exposure to unsafe medicine. We can tell it’s promoted by the gray text that reads “Promoted” below the “reply,” “retweet,” and “like” functions. End. FIGURE 116 Twitter page for user @SafeMedicine, which features its website name, safemedicine.org. End. FIGURE 117 The homepage of safemedicine.org, which reveals the name of the organization, The Partnership for Safe Medicines. End. FIGURE 118 An article about The Partnership for Safe Medicines on the Northwest Public Radio site titled, “Nonprofit Working to Block Drug Imports Has Ties to Pharma Lobby.” End. FIGURE 119 The headline of a newspaper article from 1973 titled “Nixon Sees ‘Witch-Hunt’ Insiders Say” with the Washington Post’s name below the headline. End. FIGURE 120 Google search results for “Nixon Sees Witch Hunt (site: newspapers.com OR site: google.news.com/newspapers OR site: newspaperarchive.com)” to only search on these three sites. The first result, from the LA Times, mentions our headline in the description and is from 1973. End. FIGURE 121 The newspaper article from the first result of our last Google search, which features our headline “Nixon Sees ‘Witch-Hunt’ Insiders Say.” End. FIGURE 122 Google search results for “Airline Pilot to Fly by Seat of Panties (site:newspapers.com OR site:news.google.com/newspapers OR site:newspaperarchive.com),” in which the article appears in the first result. End. Edit Previous: Finding Old Newspaper Articles Next: References

Another technique is searching for the Twitter account in Google and looking for the cached version of the page. In the video below, we search for @RealDonaldTrump in Google and then look at the cached version of his Twitter page. This works well with things recent enough to be on the first page of a Twitter stream, but old enough that Google has indexed them.

YouTube Video: Getting a Cached Twitter Page

The Twitter bar sometimes obscures the cache information, but if you can see it, it will tell you when it was last indexed. The time is in Greenwich Mean Time (the same time as London, England). So for instance, this cache of Trumps tweets was taken at 2 o’clock London time.

Google’s cache information of @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter page, reading “This is Google’s cache of https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump. It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on Feb 15, 2017 14:46:56 GMT.”


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Web Literacy for College Students 2nd Ed Copyright © 2020 by NSCC and Michael A. Caulfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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